The Top 15 Movies I Reviewed in 2017!

List by Derrick Carter

Throughout the course of 2017, I posted 206 movie reviews on this blog. Though about a quarter of those were rewatches (covering the SAW and CHILD’S PLAY franchises before their latest installments, and also paying tribute to the passing of genre legend George A. Romero), I managed to catch plenty of fresh new films, forgotten flicks, and classics that I simply hadn’t gotten around to watching. As with last year, 2017’s “Best of” list will cover movies that I watched for the first time in my life. This means that old and new films are on the table, regardless of what year they came out. If a film was new to me and I loved it, then I’m including it with my favorite films that I watched in 2017!

Before I get into my 15 favorite films that I reviewed this year, there are some honorable mentions. I had previously seen THE EXORCIST, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, THE THING, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and ALIENS before this year. Otherwise, they would be on this list. As far as first-time watches, I truly enjoyed the groundbreaking drama MOONLIGHT and adored the 80s throwback STRANGER THINGS. Concerning new horror films, THE EYES OF MY MOTHER seriously disturbed me, THE VOID was a phenomenal Lovecraftian nightmare, and THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS was one hell of a zombie film! WONDER WOMAN also wound up as my second-favorite superhero film of 2017. As for indie thrillers, WIND RIVER was a gripping ride and GOOD TIME was a neon-lit throwback to Martin Scorsese’s early work.

Now, without further ado, onto my top 15 favorite films that I reviewed during 2017…

15. MY FRIEND DAHMER: Most serial killer films focus on chilling murders of their subjects, but MY FRIEND DAHMER is not like most serial killer films. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, MY FRIEND DAHMER is a chilling drama that chronicles the pre-murderous life of Jeffrey Dahmer and examines him as a high school weirdo. By somewhat “humanizing” this psycho, the film doesn’t attempt to elicit sympathy towards its titular cannibal killer and instead shines a light on the fact that people we went to high school might very well turn into monsters seen in news headlines. Though there isn’t a single (human) murder to be found, MY FRIEND DAHMER joins the ranks among the best films about real-life serial killers (MONSTER, ZODIAC, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, and THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS).

14. FOUR LIONS: The idea of tackling Islamic terrorism through a darkly comic lens might sound completely misguided on paper, but FOUR LIONS is the best comedy that I sat through all year! The film follows four idiotic would-be terrorists as they attempt to execute a devastating attack, but constantly fumble over their own stupidity and reveal themselves to be bumbling morons. In my opinion, painting Islamic terrorists in this ridiculous light strips some of the power away from them in a similar way to what Charlie Chaplin did to Hitler in THE GREAT DICTATOR or what Rogen/Franco did to Kim Jong-Un with THE INTERVIEW. If you’re down for dark comedy and don’t mind totally offensive punchlines, you should give FOUR LIONS a watch in the near future!

13. HARD BOILED: Last year, LADY SNOWBLOOD wound up being one of my favorite movie-going experiences as I saw it in a packed cinema pub screening. This year, that cinema pub moviegoing experience belongs to HARD BOILED. This shoot ’em up actioner is over-the-top to the point of being ridiculous. Ridiculously awesome! Each gun fight plays out like a carefully choreographed dance and the film features one of the most jaw-dropping single take sequences that I’ve ever laid my eyes upon. Though it relies on a few cop movie clichés, it utilizes these in a loving way that makes the familiar material seem fresh. If you’re into action films and you haven’t seen HARD BOILED, then you need to remedy that immediately!

12. T2 TRAINSPOTTING: In all honesty, I didn’t know what exactly to expect from a sequel to TRAINSPOTTING. I love that film and I know that novelist Irvine Welsh wrote a follow-up novel, but I didn’t know how that might translate into a cinematic sequel. Over two decades after its predecessor’s release, T2 TRAINSPOTTING serves as an amazing companion piece to the original. Using the same cast and experimental visual style (albeit through a much more polished lens), TRAINSPOTTING 2 delivers stellar performances and naturally follows the lives of the four ne’er do wells from the previous film. If you loved the first film, then you’ll probably love this one too. For a full experience, it’s best to watch both of them back-to-back in the space of a single night!

11. NORTH BY NORTHWEST: This may be blasphemy for a cinephile, but I actually haven’t seen many Alfred Hitchcock films. I love PSYCHO, THE BIRDS, and DIAL M FOR MURDER, but the rest of his filmography is basically a mystery to my movie-craving eyes. My first viewing of NORTH BY NORTHWEST took place in the best possible environment (a packed movie theater) and I was blown away by how thrilling this film is. This is basically a James Bond film before Bond ever hit the screen. Cary Grant serves as a charismatic leading man who’s on the run for a murder he didn’t commit. Over the space of his death-defying adventure, we gets lots of suspense, action, and unexpected plot twists. I was on the edge of my seat for this entire film and walked away extremely satisfied. If the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography is anywhere near this great, then I’m in for a real treat as I continue to watch his work.

10. I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE: Blending a Coen brothers style of humor with indie thriller sensibilities, I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE might just be the most underseen and underrated film of 2017! This movie won an audience award at Sundance and then went directly to Netflix, where some people talked about for a couple of weeks and then it just kind of seemed to vanish out of the public eye. This is a vigilante thriller that’s believable in how inept real-life wannabe vigilantes might be and frequently dishes out shocking spurts of graphic violence. This might be the best Coen brothers film that the Coen brothers never made and I can’t wait to see what first-time director/writer Macon Blair cooks up next!

9. BABY DRIVER: What can I say? Edgar Wright consistently makes great films. BABY DRIVER is a passion project that Wright had in the works for years. In a similar fashion to how George Miller carefully planned out every scene, shot, and effect in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Wright constantly lets the viewer know that they’re in the hands of a visionary storyteller. This stylish crime tale about a getaway driver who (ironically enough) wants to get away from his criminal lifestyle is loaded with colorful characters, hilarious humor, and adrenaline-pumping action that’s synced up to one of the best damn soundtracks you’ll hear all year. I gushed over this movie back in June and I am still gushing about it now. If you want a joy ride of pure fun, BABY DRIVER will satisfy your cinematic craving!

8. THE DISASTER ARTIST: Never in a million years did I think that anything to do with Tommy Wiseau’s so-bad-it’s-good THE ROOM would ever wind up on any “Best of” list. Yet, here we are. James Franco lovingly adapts the nonfiction book about the creation of THE ROOM to the big screen in a way that’s not only hilarious, but also genuinely touching. THE DISASTER ARTIST doesn’t take the easy route of being a goofy comedy about a loser who fails so spectacularly that he kind of succeeds. Instead, this film takes a more complicated drama-comedy approach and shows us the more serious side of oddball Tommy Wiseau…and his strange friendship with would-be aspiring actor Greg Sestero. THE DISASTER ARTIST is a moving must-see for ROOM fans and cinephiles who just love great movies in general.

7. BLADE RUNNER 2049: I’m saying it right now, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is one of the best sequels to ever hit the silver screen. Over three decades after its predecessor’s debut, BLADE RUNNER 2049 recaptures the bleak sci-fi/noir spark that made the original into the cult classic that it is today. 2049’s cast all deliver amazing performances across the board, with supporting actors making the biggest impressions in their small minutes of screen time and Ryan Gosling serving as a fascinating new antihero. Besides delivering a complex mystery that unpredictably shifts directions as it goes along, 2049 also has one of the most beautiful romantic subplots in years and it features a literal “one-dimensional” character. For those who were bummed out by this film’s disappointing box office returns, remember that the first BLADE RUNNER was a box office flop and is now considered to be one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time. A similar classic status will undoubtedly follow BLADE RUNNER 2049 in future years!

6. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES: Seven years ago, if you had told me that a PLANET OF THE APES prequel trilogy would be one of the best cinematic trilogies ever, I would have laughed in your face. It turns out that’s exactly the case though. 2014’s DAWN drastically improved upon the minor flaws of 2011’s RISE, but 2017’s WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is stellar storytelling from beginning to end. Themes of revenge, survival, and forgiveness are examined throughout the film’s ever-changing plot. Performance wise, WAR fully shapes out intelligent ape Caesar (played wonderfully by Andy Serkis) as animal protagonist who’s more compelling than most human protagonists in films and also introduces Woody Harrelson as a monstrous villain who we want to see die in the most painful way possible. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES was the best possible way to conclude the APES prequel trilogy and is one of the best summer blockbusters I’ve ever sat through!

5. IRREVERSIBLE: I originally heard about Gaspar Noe’s rape-revenge drama from a podcast in 2008, but hadn’t bothered to give it a look until earlier this year. Though not strictly a horror film by any means, IRREVERSIBLE is a terrifying cinematic experience as events are told backwards. Unlike other linear rape-revenge stories, we see the revenge come first and travel backwards through the moments that eventually lead up to the violent act of justice. As the film plays out in reverse (ironic considering its title), we put pieces of this depressing puzzle together for ourselves and this already tragic event becomes even more tragic with each new revelation. This isn’t a film for the faint-hearted and it’s about as bleak as they come, but IRREVERSIBLE is an uncompromising masterpiece that deserves to be seen by anybody who loves the serious artistic side of cinema!

4. LOGAN: There will never be a better Wolverine than Hugh Jackman. I’m saying that right now. Over a decade has been spent watching Jackman in the role of this weaponized mutant, so LOGAN serves as a suitable final chapter for Jackman’s reluctant do-gooder. The future X-MEN films have a tough act to follow, because LOGAN is a special kind of superhero story. Relationships between the small cast of characters drives the emotional core of this film forward, whilst the R rating finally delivers something that X-MEN fans have wanted to see since 2000: a bad-ass Wolverine slicing and dicing his way through bad guys. This film also has shades of Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD crossed with a comic book story that’s about as unconventional as they come. Now that Disney is in talks to own the X-MEN franchise, we likely won’t see another film like LOGAN coming from this mutant-based series. LOGAN is a one-of-a-kind superhero film and one of the best comic book movies ever made!

3. EYES WIDE SHUT: Stanley Kubrick’s final film is an underrated masterpiece about the way in which people delude themselves into believing that they’re happy…and also there’s a creepy sex cult involved too. The entire film has a dream-like atmosphere as we watch the main character (Tom Cruise) venture through a single night odyssey that explores the sexual possibilities of cheating on his wife. Kubrick masterfully shows the dire consequences that might result from following our instinctual desires, whilst also putting us into the place of Cruise’s character. This is especially true of the ending which offers two distinct possibilities: one of them is easy and comforting…and the other one is ambiguous and dangerous. Whatever you might think of it or how you might interpret it, EYES WIDE SHUT is sure to keep you talking about it long after it’s over.

2. YOUR NAME: Eat your heart out Studio Ghibli! YOUR NAME just might be one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever sat through. This film has gorgeous animation from beginning to end, while also delivering an entrancing tale of emotions and body-swapping. It’s initial set-up sounds like the anime equivalent of FREAKY FRIDAY, but drastically becomes something far more charming and moving as its complex plot moves along. This might be one of the strangest love stories ever put to the screen, but its emotional resonance is undeniable! The characters are all built up to the point where the viewer feels for their struggles and deeply cares about them. This makes the film’s final third into a very suspenseful and gripping ride. Also, the climax is utterly perfect. YOUR NAME is a masterpiece and deserves every bit of praise it has received so far (and will continue to receive)!

1. MOTHER!: Much like my favorite film of 2016 (HIGH-RISE), I know that there will be people who loathe and downright detest MOTHER! Some will hate it for its sheer artsy nightmare-logic style and others will despise its controversial message, but I adored every single frame of this fucked-up little ditty. The film follows a woman and her husband in an isolated countryside house. After a strange couple pop in and just decide to stay, their lives are shifted in horrifying ways. I can’t get too into details, because it would spoil some of the film’s nasty surprises and metaphorical madness. I will say that MOTHER! is my favorite horror film of the 2010s so far and one of the ballsiest films to ever receive a nationwide theatrical release. People either really love this film or totally hate it. There isn’t much middle ground to be found and you will likely walk away with a very strong opinion about it. One of the film’s trailers promised that “you’ll never forget where you were the first time you saw MOTHER!” and that statement is completely accurate. I’ve been thinking about this unforgettable horror film since its release and I can’t wait to dive into it again and again in future years to come!

Well, 2017 was a wild year for me…both on this site and in my personal life. I’m currently in the process of moving, so reviews will resume sometime in January! I plan to keep this little movie blog rolling, with plenty of reviews (both old and new) being pumped out on a mostly regular basis! A huge “thank you” to anyone who’s read this blog at all during the past year or any new readers who are discovering it for the first time. There was plenty to love in the world of film during 2017 and here’s to a just as great (if not better) 2018!

MOTHER! (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Disturbing Violent Content, some Sexuality, Nudity and Language

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Written by: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, Jovan Adepo & Stephen McHattie

Darren Aronofsky is known for artsy psychological headtrips and experimenting with narrative structure. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM put him on the map for moviegoers, whilst THE FOUNTAIN served as an ambitious anthology that split folks down the middle, and BLACK SWAN was a beautiful descent into madness. Also, NOAH saw Aronofsky putting his own fantastical spin on a Bible epic with polarizing reactions as a result. I’ve pretty much loved every Aronofsky film that I’ve seen thus far, so know that’s where I stand when I say that MOTHER! is a brilliant, ballsy piece of cinema that completely blew me away. This is easily one of the most original horror films that I’ve seen in years and is guaranteed to make a lot of people hate it. Those who dig MOTHER! though, will likely love it and not be able to stop thinking about it.

Without giving any spoilers away in my plot synopsis, I’ll say that MOTHER! is about the relationship between a poet (Javier Bardem) and his much-younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence). Lawrence’s character has renovated her husband’s formerly burned down house from scratch and the end result is beautiful to behold, but Javier’s character still can’t get over a troubling bit of writer’s block. When a mysterious couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) show up uninvited and make their way into Lawrence’s and Bardem’s home, tensions begin to flare as Lawrence strongly dislikes their imposing presence and Bardem revels in their company. More guests soon arrive and things quickly spiral into morbid metaphorical madness!

MOTHER! is a film that’s bound to polarize viewers. First of all, this is very much an arthouse horror flick. The narrative constantly uses nightmare logic and plot points/characters are clearly meant to represent things outside of this story. Symbolism is strong in this film. Those who don’t enjoy slow burns and artsy flicks will most likely despise this movie from its strange beginning until the deeply disturbing conclusion. Then there’s the actual message (or messages, depending on your interpretation of events) which may turn certain viewers off. Aronofsky isn’t exactly subtle in certain areas, and there’s enough head-fuckery to guarantee multiple viewings are necessary to catch everything in this detailed piece of art.

Jennifer Lawrence deviates from her mainstream dramedies and teeny-bopper roles to play her ballsiest role yet as this film’s titular protagonist. As Lawrence’s character is put through the emotional gauntlet, the viewer is also pushed through the wringer. I felt that her growing frustration, bafflement and devastation were all completely believable as I felt the same emotions whilst experiencing this film (in the best way possible). Javier Bardem has already proven himself to be a phenomenal performer time and time again. I don’t want to say too much about his character here, but he leaves an unforgettable impression and tackles his difficult-to-understand character with bravado.

In a supporting role, Ed Harris is half likable and half creepy as the first unexpected guest. Michelle Pfeiffer is positively hateable as his wife and will make you want to slap her in the face. She’s so good at being bad in this film. Domhnall Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, and Stephen McHattie also pop in for supporting roles and make the most of the screen time they receive. The other supporting actors, a bunch of random faces, also will gradually piss you off as much as they do Jennifer Lawrence’s character. This film does a fantastic job of making you irritated and uncomfortable towards people simply being assholes. I don’t want to dive deeper into these characters’ actions…because there would definitely be spoilers in those details.

As far as cinematography goes, this movie is incredibly atmospheric and there’s a growing dread that digs inside you as the running time moves forward. Even though this is a slow burn, these two hours rushed by for me and I know that I’ll be rewatching this film many times in the future. It also seems fair to describe MOTHER! as the most unusual home invasion horror flick that you’ll ever see. The film also contains truly disturbing scenes and becomes all-out insanity during its final third. There are genuinely horrific images that you won’t be able to forget after you’ve seen this film and Aronofsky’s demented script puts brilliant spin on centuries-old themes.

If you don’t want to read minor spoilers, skip to the last paragraph. Aronofsky really ticked people off by treating NOAH as a fantasy and though that film wasn’t perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed it. This taken into consideration, MOTHER! seems to be the exact swtich-up of that formula. Here, Aronofsky is retelling Bible stories in the most fucked up, disturbing way possible and it winds up being one of the ballsiest films that I’ve seen in the 2010s. Though there’s an argument to made about the interpretations of artistry and failing relationships, I totally bought this on the not-so-subtle Biblical ideas and characters’ names seem to really hammer that home for me. I adored this film, but can totally understand why someone wouldn’t be into this sort of thing and not care for it at all.

MOTHER! feels like something that Lynch, Cronenberg, or Kubrick would have directed in their heyday. It’s one of the strangest home invasion horror films you’ll ever see, while also serving as a brilliant slice of metaphorical madness for those who really love this film’s sheer darkness and overall message. This is a strange, rough, and fucked up film…and I loved every single second of it. A movie hasn’t left me pondering over it this much in a long time and I can’t wait to revisit MOTHER! many times in the future. This is not only the best horror film that I’ve seen in years and one of the best films of 2017 (so far), I’d argue that this will go down as one of the best films of the 2010s for me!

Grade: A+

PASSENGERS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sexuality, Nudity and Action/Peril

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Directed by: Morten Tyldum

Written by: Jon Spaihts

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne & Andy Garcia

Maybe it was because of low expectations set by poor word of mouth and a so-so marketing campaign, but I didn’t have high hopes for PASSENGERS. Everything leading up to this film’s release made it seem like a generic execution of a cool premise. However, this sci-fi/romance/adventure is one of the most pleasant cinematic surprises I’ve had all year. Tackling an unconventional love story alongside a very tense “what would you do?” scenario, this film mixes fantastic spectacle (the production values are amazing) with tough moral dilemmas that might have different viewers seeing the film in entirely different ways. The way I see it, that’s not a bad thing at all.

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The Avalon is transporting 5,000 passengers and over 200 crew members to colonization planet Homestead II. The intergalactic journey takes 120 years, so those aboard the spaceship are put into over a century of hibernation and woken up in the voyage’s final four months. When a gigantic asteroid causes an unexpected power surge, two passengers wake up 90 years too early and find themselves unable to go back into hibernation. Faced with spending the rest of their lives aboard the Avalon, mechanic Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) and writer Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) begin to fall head over heels for each other and try to make the most of their depressing situation. However, circumstances become dire when malfunctions begin to occur all over the Avalon and the fate of thousands of lives soon rests on their shoulders.

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PASSENGERS will likely divide viewers based purely on a character’s decision that doubles as a grim moral dilemma. This has already been spoiled in certain reviews as it happens within the first 20 minutes of the story and massively contributes to the main set-up. This presents one of the protagonists as a deeply flawed human being and ponders some tough questions about human nature. However, the film doesn’t ignore this problematic plot development and frequently wrestles with the questionable ethics behind it. In all honesty, PASSENGERS might have been a deeper, more complex film if it had gone further with this moral dilemma…but it instead opts for a mostly straightforward space adventure/love story. Depending on how you feel about this plot detail (which I will not spoil) and the movie’s treatment of it will ultimately contribute to how much you enjoy or strongly dislike this film as a whole.

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Though the story only calls for a handful of performances, the big name actors carry this film entirely on their more-than-capable shoulders. Chris Pratt plays a complex protagonist and drives the story forward, capturing the tragic distress that one would rightfully feel at the universe’s cruel sense of humor in his misfortune. Jennifer Lawrence slightly phones it in during certain scenes, but once again proves why she’s one of Hollywood’s biggest actresses for a majority of the running time. On the sidelines, Michael Sheen delivers amusing comic relief as an overly polite android bartender and provides a shoulder for both characters to cry on. I won’t say much about Laurence Fishburne and Andy Garcia for fear of spoilers, but the former definitely leaves his mark on the plot.

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PASSENGERS excels in terms of effects and spectacle. Rest assured, this movie isn’t only about the special effects and thrives on a compelling story and quality performances. However, the many special effects and lavish sets all contribute to the proceedings. Some moments are comical, e.g. the ship’s technology not recognizing the sleep pod screw-up and treating the two passengers like they’re average customers. Other moments are beautiful, a floating romantic walk through the starry recesses of outer space is stunning. For a majority of the second half of the film, the effects make up the effectively exciting and peril-filled stakes. One of the most intense bits involves Jennifer Lawrence getting trapped in an anti-gravity swimming pool and facing the possibility of drowning in a way that’s never really been seen before on film.

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As entertaining, fun and thought-provoking as it is, PASSENGERS does encounter a few filmmaking malfunctions of its own. The romance angle is mostly well done and developed in a convincing way, but there are over-the-top sappy moments (e.g. the characters trying to kiss through their spacesuits and going through romantic-comedy tropes in space). A couple of plot holes also keep nagging at the back of my mind, one of which bothers me almost as much as the floating door at the end of TITANIC. The more I think about this single scene, the less sense it makes. This sloppy story development (late in the film) probably should have been excised altogether or rewritten in a different manner. Nevertheless, these problems don’t come close to overshadowing the film’s many positives.

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PASSENGERS is far from perfect and definitely could have been better with a few rewrites to cover up some plot holes. However, it treats a major moral dilemma in a serious fashion and delivers a complicated love story as a result. Ultimately, how you feel about the characters and the treatment of a certain plot detail will likely determine how you feel about this film as a whole. I wasn’t expecting to like this movie as much as I did, but it’s a mature (flawed) science fiction romantic-adventure that also functions as a story about what it means to be human (complete with our imperfections). PASSENGERS may go down as one of the most underrated films to come out of 2016. I wouldn’t be surprised if a stronger appreciation for this film grows over time.

Grade: B+

JOY (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief Strong Language

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Directed by: David O. Russell

Written by: David O. Russell

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Rohm, Virginia Madsen & Isabella Rossellini

A biopic about Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop, may not exactly sound like an exciting film. However, one only needs to look at the cast to realize that this potential flop actually has a lot of talent behind it, including one of the best modern filmmakers working today. While JOY may not quite be up to the standards of David O. Russell’s recent hits (paling in comparison to AMERICAN HUSTLE and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK), it’s an underdog story that’s bound to compel, entertain and reward. Taken strictly as an emotional and stylized drama, JOY is a worthwhile viewing experience.

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New York, 1989. Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) is struggling through her day-to-day life as a divorced mother and working a stressful dead-end job. Joy’s family members only add to her frustrations as her mother (Virginia Madsen) is an agoraphobic mess, her father (Robert De Niro) is a constantly angry individual, and her half-sister (Elisabeth Rohm) is always finding new ways to downgrade Joy’s life. After taking years of crap, cleaning up after her relatives, and being the sole bread-winner, Joy is struck with inspiration and invents the miracle mop! However, putting a product out on the market is harder than it seems. Patents must be filed. Outlets must be acquired. Legal issues must be crushed. The cutthroat world of business provides new challenges for Joy, but she’s been overcoming obstacles her entire life.

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The best thing about JOY is Jennifer Lawrence’s strong performance. In a cast where nearly everybody is playing an unlikable asshole, Lawrence’s Joy stands out as a rational, sane and determined individual. In every scene, Lawrence’s titular character is always determined to get on top of things and her line delivery can make the most mundane conversation seem intimidating. The only other slightly enjoyable characters come in Bradley Cooper as a tv exec friend in commerce and Edgar Ramirez as the best ex-husband you’ve ever seen. One character even comments on how Joy and her ex get along much better without their pesky marriage between them.

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As I already mentioned though, damn near every remaining character comes off as annoying to one degree or another. Almost every member of Joy’s family is emotionally abusive and underhandedly passive-aggressive. The most frustrating character is easily Isabella Rossellini as Joy’s step-mother, who takes an interest in the miracle mop, but also seems to revel in lording her finances over the struggling Joy’s head. That’s not to say that Robert De Niro’s over-the-top neglectful father, Virginia Madsen’s comically reclusive mother, or Elisabeth Rohm’s vindictive half-sister are much better, because these characters almost seem cartoony in their abusive nature. They slightly take the viewer out of the semi-realistic vibe of this semi-biographical movie.

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Director/writer David O. Russell has described JOY as being unlike the rest of his films. That’s very evident in its stylish execution. Russell employs dream sequences, various storytelling techniques, and over-the-top visual flourishes. These can be a bit pretentious, especially in a recurring nightmare about Joy being stuck in a TV soap opera and voice-over narration from her grandmother, but these touches add to the overall emotions of the main character’s journey. JOY truly shines in its portrayal of the cruel, unforgiving world of business. Opportunities, backstabbings, and legal difficulties arise as Joy’s miracle mop becomes successful. Each new challenge is frustrating, but it’s satisfying to watch Joy use her head and ingenuity to overcome each of them.

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JOY is good entertainment, but not without noticeable flaws. Only the titular protagonist and two side characters are remotely likable, while everyone else grates on the nerves. Those problems might be chalked up to the script, because the actors seem to be giving it their all. The film’s stylistic touches are fun, but can be pretentious and silly. Those damn soap opera nightmares are just too much and the narration seems like it should be coming from Joy, instead of her grandmother. Even with these annoyances, I am glad that I watched this movie. As a drama about the woman who invented the miracle mop, JOY is surprisingly satisfying.

Grade: B

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of Violence, Action and Destruction, brief Strong Language and some Suggestive Images

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Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Simon Kinberg

(based on the X-MEN comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Ben Hardy & Lana Condor

After seeing the stinger at the end of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, X-MEN fans were greatly anticipating the big screen appearance of the X-Men’s greatest foe: Apocalypse! With Bryan Singer returning to direct, it seemed like nothing would potentially go wrong with this ninth(!) installment in the X-MEN franchise. While APOCALYPSE definitely has its moments and glimmers of great potential, I couldn’t help but be reminded of X-MEN: THE LAST STAND during multiple points. APOCALYPSE isn’t quite as bad as that film, because it still manages to maintain a big dumb fun sense of entertainment. Still, prepare to be underwhelmed.

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The year is 1983 and the events of DAYS OF FUTURE PAST have changed the world. Mutants and humans find themselves in danger when En Sabah Nur (a.k.a. Apocalypse, played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac) awakens from a centuries-long slumber in his Egyptian tomb. This intimidating villain was history’s first mutant and has acquired a vast variety of powers throughout the years, making him pretty much invincible. Apocalypse is looking to break down our world and build a better one on top of it, recruiting four horseman along the way: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and a newly enraged Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Pitted against Apocalypse and his four horsemen are Professor X (James McAvoy), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Havok (Lucas Till) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), alongside newcomers Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Phoenix (Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It’s mutants vs. god-like mutants in a showdown that will determine the fate of the world as we know it.

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The X-MEN films often stick out in the crowded superhero genre, because they usually tackle subplots of self-discovery, prejudice, and civil rights as addressed through mutants. While APOCALYPSE has some of these elements, they are mostly overshadowed by a sloppy script covering familiar ground that’s already been seen many times before. This is basically a clichéd, by-the-numbers “good vs. evil” tale that happens to feature the X-MEN. To make matters worse, the screenplay is downright messy and unfocused. It seems like attention was being paid to the wrong details and important scenes were missing (opening up plot holes along the way). This ultimately leads to pacing issues that immediately spring up with four (count ’em, four!) prologue sequences before the main plot can even begin.

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Though he’s a clichéd and one-dimensional baddie, Apocalypse remains cool nonetheless. Played by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac under layers of make-up and a forty-pound costume, this evil mutant has various abilities that make him seemingly unstoppable. There were multiple points in this story where I wondered how the X-Men could possibly hope to defeat him. Though his preachy monologues can get repetitive, Apocalypse is genuinely scary in his ability to manipulate matter (making for lots of cool kills), teleport, being super strong and having psychic powers to boot. Though he may look a bit ridiculous, this cinematic version of Apocalypse more than resembles his comic book counterpart.

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Other fresh faces come from a new class of young mutants and three of Apocalypse’s “horsemen.” It occasionally feels like APOCALYPSE is trying to cram too many mutants into one film and spends a lot time reintroducing each of them, which slows down the movie’s already mixed momentum. While I love the character of Psylocke and Olivia Munn is positively breathtaking in the role, she really isn’t given a whole lot to do other than fight. Storm and Angel both receives a strong introductions and then don’t do much afterwards. The horsemen (save for Magneto) mainly stand around, make Apocalypse look cool, and then engage in a quick fight or two.

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I was really excited to see Tye Sheridan as Cyclops and Sophie Turner as Phoenix…but they both seem to be hit or miss in their roles. It’s almost as if they want to emulate James Marsden and Famke Janssen’s versions of the characters, but are also trying to do their own thing. This results in two uneven characters from performers who seem slightly uncomfortable in their roles. Kodi Smit-McPhee more than makes up for their shortcomings as Nightcrawler. McPhee has been hit-or-miss in his past roles, but Nightcrawler is easily one of his best performances. He nails the awkwardness of this teleporting, blue-tailed mutant. It doesn’t really bear mentioning how Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, and Michael Fassbender are in their roles, because they all have their parts down and have done so for two movies.

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APOCALYPSE’s script suffers from a by-the-numbers plot, missing beats, and lots of filler (included for fan service and setting up future installments). The villainous William Stryker (Josh Helman) appears yet again and pads the film by an extra twenty minutes, but the pay-off to this comes in purposely erasing the worst X-MEN movie (no, I’m not talking about THE LAST STAND). The Blob and Jubilee make blink-and-you-missed-it appearances, which seemed like a waste of time for fans altogether. If you’re going to include these characters, show them doing something other than being dragged unconscious out of a fighting ring or walking down a hallway. Also, the Quicksilver scene from DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is replicated here to an eye-rollingly excessive degree.

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On the positive side of things, APOCALYPSE excels in Magneto’s storyline. This tragic metal-bending villain is easily one of X-MEN’s most complex characters and a few powerful scenes expand upon his tragic past. The film looks good and is packed with convincing special effects. Though it becomes too over-the-top in places, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE remains entertaining enough. I am happy that I watched it, but probably won’t subject myself to it again, unless I’m doing an X-MEN marathon. APOCALYPSE is the third-worst X-MEN film (better than THE LAST STAND and ORIGINS: WOLVERINE) and is far from terrible, especially given the high quality from the rest of the series. If you’re an X-MEN fan, you’ll probably find things to like in this mixed bag installment. Still, prepare to walk away underwhelmed.

Grade: C+

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 2 (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, and for some Thematic Material

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Danny Strong & Peter Craig

(based on the novel MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Willow Shields, Jeffrey Wright & Stanley Tucci

This year marks the conclusion of THE HUNGER GAMES. Fitting snugly into the young adult fiction void left by HARRY POTTER and TWILIGHT, Suzzanne Collins’ teeny-bopperized version of BATTLE ROYALE made huge waves on the big screen. While I didn’t care for the first film at all, I found CATCHING FIRE to be surprisingly well-executed. Like seemingly all modern book adaptations, the final novel of the series was split into two separate films. As a result, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 felt like a feature-length first act. Picking up from the exact final seconds of Part 1, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 returns to the level of quality that CATCHING FIRE brought to the franchise. This is a very dark, intense, and satisfying final chapter to the HUNGER GAMES saga.

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Katniss’s propaganda campaign worked wonders for the rebels of Panem and the nation is in the midst of a full-blown revolutionary war. While the united Districts may have a massive army of soldiers, the sinister President Snow still has a few dirty tricks up his sleeve. He’s employed brainwashing techniques to turn Peeta against Katniss and has rigged the Capitol with hundreds of deadly booby traps. As this war progresses towards its darkest final hours, Katniss (aided by a handful of former Hunger Game survivors and freedom fighters) sets out across the deadly city landscape to assassinate President Snow. However, she discovers that there are few people that she can trust in this war.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is dark, really dark. This fourth and final HUNGER GAMES installment is more horrific and intense than any of the previous chapters. Though it still contains a slight level of silliness, I found myself sucked into this story more than I was during the entirety of Part 1. Instead of merely using the repeated formula of a group of individuals trying to kill each other in a booby-trapped stadium, MOCKINGJAY Part 2 instead makes the viewer realize how big and bad the war raging in the Capitol is. As a result, the script is far more mature than I expected it to be. There’s a very strong anti-war message that’s undeniable as lives are lost on both sides and certain individuals twist the chaotic violence for their own personal gain.

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As far as the cast goes, Jennifer Lawrence has never been better as Katniss. The character has a quiet intensity for most of the film that feels convincing (especially given everything that’s happened to her throughout the past three movies). Lawrence’s strongest scene comes from her character having a pure emotional meltdown during a moment in the final third that was completely believable. I imagine that particular scene is bound to get a few fans crying in the theater. Though MOCKINGJAY Part 2 still has an annoying love-triangle aspect (which did remind me of the horrible TWILIGHT movies), I felt that both Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth brought their A-game as Peeta and Gale. They are more than just eye candy for teenage girls and actually serve a purpose in the plot.

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Julianne Moore returns for a much bigger role than she had in Part 1 as President Coin. Next to her side is the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final on-screen performance. Though he only receives about 5 minutes of total screen time, Hoffman is just as talented as he ever was. Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson reprise their roles, but don’t necessarily have a ton to do in this final chapter. The colorful-haired Stanley Tucci also pops in for a one scene appearance, while Jena Malone (who plays one of my favorite characters in the whole series) is mostly regulated to the sidelines for about three good scenes. Natalie Dormer, who was an important player in Part 1, only receives about a handful of lines and mainly stands in the background as an extra gun. Donald Sutherland owns the role of President Snow as a menacing politician who’s always the smartest, and most dangerous, person in the room. Most of the supporting cast members aren’t necessarily given a ton to do, because this is Katniss’s story.

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MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is beautifully shot and has many stand-out sequences. Creative booby traps provide some of the more exciting moments (an oil pit being a definitely highlight). There’s a nice atmosphere of tension and hopelessness (despite us knowing full well how this story is probably going to play out). Though most of the CGI works well, there’s one scene in a sewer that looks as if it took a page out of RESIDENT EVIL or (more recently) THE SCORCH TRIALS with some silly-looking creatures. There’s also a minor plot hole that annoyed me for a few minutes when it popped up. The running time runs a tad too long thanks to this film having the same amount of endings as RETURN OF THE KING. There were about three shots where the movie could have ended perfectly and it kept going as if to show us every minor detail to the point of annoyance.

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Truthfully told, there’s no reason why MOCKINGJAY couldn’t have just been a three-hour long final movie. The decision to split the story in two films was purely financial and contributes to pacing problems. Part 1 feels like the first act of a movie and Part 2 feels like the last two acts of that same movie. With some complaints aside (silly monsters, an ending that overstays its welcome, and a few wasted performances), MOCKINGJAY Part 2 is on the same level as CATCHING FIRE for me. It was nice to watch a young-adult movie series that started off on a shaky note and became something far better than it probably should have been by its finale. THE HUNGER GAMES franchise has left a mark in cinema as a new blockbuster sci-fi saga that will be remembered for years to come. MOCKINGJAY Part 2 serves as a more than satisfying final note to go out on.

Grade: B

My Top 10 Films of 2014

List by Derrick Carter

2014 has been a solid year for cinema. As with every film critic (freelance or professional), there comes a time of decision-making as to what the best movies of the year were. This list is all opinion based (like my reviews) and I can understand why people might not (and probably won’t) completely agree with every choice. In deciding how to rank my top 10 of the year, I noticed there was an equal amount of independent/foreign fare and big studio hits. This was unintentional, but is a nice detail that highlights how balanced this year really was for cinema all around.

Before I get into my actual list, it bears mentioning that I have not seen/reviewed every single film from this year (I plan on covering FOXCATCHER, INHERENT VICE, and AMERICAN SNIPER eventually). I’m only one man after all, so my selections come from the films that I’ve watched and reviewed this year. That all being said and without further ado, here are my 10 favorite films from 2014!

Honorable Mentions: BOUND BY FLESH, UNDER THE SKIN, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, FURY, THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2, and A MOST WANTED MAN

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10. BIG BAD WOLVES: I wasn’t terribly impressed with Aharon Keshales’s and Navot Papushado’s directorial debut, RABIES. BIG BAD WOLVES serves as a drastic improvement. At first, the story seems relatively simple. However, the diabolical screenplay toys with the viewer in injecting a pitch-black sense of humor that works wonderfully and a dark tone that isn’t the slightest bit funny. Things aren’t as simple as they originally appear and a haunting conclusion ensures that this film will stick with you. I originally saw/reviewed it in January and it has held up on multiple viewings throughout the year. If you’re up for a disturbing tour-de-force of horror that defies expectations, BIG BAD WOLVES should be on your radar!

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9. THE LEGO MOVIE: On New Year’s Day, I was chatting with a friend about how much I thought THE LEGO MOVIE was going to suck. This concept seemed doomed from the beginning and I was reluctantly dragged to the theater at the urging of my younger siblings. In all of 2014, I have never been so happy that I was so wrong about a film! Blending meta-elements, rapid fire jokes, and a hilarious storyline, THE LEGO MOVIE is 2014’s biggest surprise! The animation (which appears to combine stop-motion and computer graphics) is stellar. Tons of jokes are present so that it takes multiple viewings to catch every little piece (pun intended) that the movie has to offer. LEGO MOVIE is not only the best family film of 2014, everything about it is awesome!

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8. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST: The X-MEN movies have a good vs. bad ratio of 5 to 2. Those are fantastic odds for any blockbuster series. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST delivered the best entry in the mutant saga to date. This much-anticipated comic book storyline was fantastically brought to life by returning director Bryan Singer. In lesser hands, FUTURE PAST could have become a standard blockbuster with the gimmick of time travel used to combine both casts of the franchise. Instead, this film was a delight to sit through for myself and many film goers this past summer. Easily the best comic book film since Christopher Nolan graced the silver screen with his take on Batman. Definitely count me in for APOCALYPSE in 2016!

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7. NIGHTCRAWLER: Scarier than any true horror film that I saw in all of 2014, NIGHTCRAWLER is a truly disturbing movie. Disappearing completely into the main character of Lou, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an award-worthy performance that creeped me out to the point where I was wriggling in my seat as he manipulated everyone around him. In a sense, Lou is a vampire sucking the moral decency out of everyone he comes across. As a dark, disturbing, and unflinching masterwork, NIGHTCRAWLER serves as cinematic nightmare that I can’t wait to revisit in the near future.

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6. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: This was the summer blockbuster that delivered on every possible level. It had grand action and amazing effects (those monkeys look so real), but also incorporated them into a smart story and complicated characters. While RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was a huge surprise for everyone, DAWN has cemented itself as my personal favorite APE movie. DAWN blended spectacle and a fantastic plot so perfectly that it makes me shake with anticipation for the newest upcoming APES film (Summer 2016). Having seen RISE and DAWN, I’m more than prepared to bow down to our future primate overlords. This movie rocked!

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5. THE RAID 2: I watched the original RAID at its Sundance premiere and thought it was an impressive action flick, but a tad overrated in the end. This exhilarating sequel pulls out all the stops to one up the original in every possible way. While APES blended spectacle with an intelligent story, RAID 2 blends an intense gangster thriller with mind-blowing action scenes. I was exhausted by the end of this film and that’s the biggest compliment I can give any action movie. Each fight scene has its own unique spin so none of them blended into one another. A few that stick out in my mind are a prison yard fight, one of the most intense/realistic car chases that I’ve ever seen, and a stunning confrontation between two highly skilled, deadly men. Those are just a few of the phenomenal sequences that this epic-length modern action classic has to offer. It plays like THE DEPARTED had a baby with a Bruce Lee movie. It’s friggin’ nuts and I loved every second of it!

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4. WHIPLASH: How do you turn a protégé story about a young man trying to be a successful drummer into a nail-bitingly thriller? Apparently, you get Damien Chazelle to write and direct it. Though he is a young newcomer, Chazelle struck gold in this fantastic and deep drama. I didn’t like Miles Teller before watching this movie and now appreciate that he has some serious acting chops on him. J.K. Simmons, usually a side character or background actor, is given room to be the most intimidating antagonist that I saw in a film all year. He plays a conductor, but Simmons is downright scary as hell and entertaining to watch at the same time. Well shot, well written, well acted, and all around well constructed, WHIPLASH is a masterpiece!

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3. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: The evening that I spent watching this magical film was an enchanting experience. Evoking a sense of classic comedies and a fairy tale color palette, Wes Anderson’s GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL sucked me into its oddball world from the first frame. Ralph Fiennes’s Gustave H. and Adrien Brody’s villain had me breaking into hysterical laughter throughout this whole film. Besides the humor, there’s a unique sweetness to BUDAPEST as well as a compelling storyline (background happenings reward repeat viewings). GRAND BUDAPEST is sincere in its story, humor, honest emotions, and ridiculous nature. Cinematic heaven!

GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20th

2. GONE GIRL: Going into 2014, there was one film that I was highly anticipating. That was David Fincher’s adaptation of the best-selling mystery, GONE GIRL. The novel is acclaimed, for good reason, of having a nasty sleight of hand that trips up the reader’s preconceived notions. Fincher masterfully transfers that level of Hitchcockian suspense onto the screen in this deeply disturbing and haunting thriller. I didn’t spoil anything in my review and I won’t spoil anything here either. If anyone does try to give away the plot, slap them in the face before they can give away any detail. Though it’s really your fault for having not seen this film yet. Go see it! Seriously! It’s the smartest, entirely compelling and most intense thriller that I’ve seen all year. Once you’ve seen GONE GIRL, you’ll know why everyone is raving about it so much.

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1. BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE): What do I even say about this film? When I saw the trailer for BIRDMAN, I felt iffy on it. This looked to be a quirky comedy that could potentially be good, but might rely far too much on the gimmick of having a washed-up former superhero actor playing a washed-up former superhero actor. Nevertheless, I walked into the movie theater hoping for a good flick. In less than 10 minutes, I was under the film’s spell. This wasn’t just good or funny, this was fantastic and amazing. Telling the story in a stylistic choice that appears to be caught in one take (through various hidden cuts) and containing some of the best performances that this entire year had to offer, BIRDMAN is an extraordinary piece of cinema. I’ve bad-mouthed Michael Keaton for a couple of crappy movies he did earlier this year, but his performance really is something to behold in this film! There’s never been anything quite like BIRDMAN before and there’s never going to be anything quite like it again. BIRDMAN is perfection!

2014 was a solid year and produced a lot of phenomenal films. I hope 2015 is even better!

THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY Part 1 (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Action, some Disturbing Images and Thematic Material

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Written by: Danny Strong & Peter Craig

(based on the novel MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland, Natalie Dormer, Sam Claflin, Robert Knepper, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci & Jeffrey Wright

HUNGER GAMES has been filling the void of good young adult book adaptations left behind by the (mostly) phenomenal HARRY POTTER saga. It’s staggering how popular this series is and I’ve been excited for MOCKINGJAY Part 1 to a certain degree. I actually didn’t care for 2012’s THE HUNGER GAMES (it was a silly teeny-bopper version of BATTLE ROYALE) and found last year’s CATCHING FIRE to be a remarkable step up in quality on pretty much every level. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 falls somewhere in between those two films. It’s not great entertainment, but never sinks to the silliness of the first film. The biggest problem that knocks this film down in quality is obvious in the title, but more on that in a moment.

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When we last left two-time Hunger Games survivor Katniss Everdeen, she had been used as part of a rebel plot against the Capitol and was being taken to the supposedly destroyed District 13. That’s where we pick up in this movie. Katniss witnesses the cruelty that the evil President Snow has brought onto her District and others (including executing those associating with the Mockingjay symbol and oppressing everyone even further). She becomes the face of a rising revolution and the tables begin to turn on the Capitol, but this is violent revolution and lives will be lost on both sides. That’s the general plot of this film and it leaves us with a huge “see you next November” final scene (more so than CATCHING FIRE did).

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Production values on MOCKINGJAY are fantastic. Seeing this world come to life was actually my favorite part of this third entry. With the plots of the previous two films revolving around battles-to-the-death in complex arenas that provided many dangers (besides the group of teenage killers running around), it didn’t seem like enough time was spent on developing this futuristic society enough for the viewer to care about the overall struggles of the huge class system. Jennifer Lawrence slips right back into Katniss mode with little effort and has made the character her own at this point. The same can be said for every returning cast member. The new additions (mainly Julianne Moore and Natalie Dormer) are good in what they’re given to do (which doesn’t amount to much other than a few conversations). The overall plot is compelling, but there’s a problem that sticks out like a sore thumb…

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The main issue that many (including myself) will likely have with MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is that “Part 1” at the end of the title. Greed might have ruined what could have been a stand-out conclusion to an entertaining trilogy. The whole movie (as compelling as it is) feels like a first act stretched to feature-length. If you’re still waiting for things to get fully going by the time the end credits roll, then I feel you because that was my exact reaction. The main character of Katniss is given remarkably very little to do in this film other than utter some lines and encourage others to fight back against a corrupt government. Nearly every piece of action you’ve seen in the marketing is taken from one scene that happens early on. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is far more focused on this revolution beginning than actually showing the revolution taking place. It’s all set-up and filler. While I enjoyed details about it, there will be viewers who wholly dislike this film for that reason and it’s a valid point.

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Despite feeling like a stretched first act to a really solid movie, the film does have a handful of intense scenes. The political subtext isn’t as subtle as many might prefer it to be, but the messages in MOCKINGJAY Part 1 are far more mature than most of the young adult adaptation counter-parts this year. Most of the character bonding moments are filler. We know who these people are and we don’t need to see them bond anymore as we want to see the action (which has been building for two movies) come to fruition. These were merely included to pad out the running time even further and they feel useless.

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In a world where studios are milking every closing chapter of young adult franchises for all that they’re worth, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 isn’t a bad set-up film for a good finale. However, it still remains a set-up film for the finale. One giant MOCKINGJAY movie would have done the job just fine and it seems like studio greed might be slightly spoiling this final book adaptation. As far as books being split into multiple movies go, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS and THE HOBBIT are both getting the concept right. MOCKINGJAY Part 1 feels like BREAKING DAWN Part 1 in the sense that this all could have been wrapped up in the opening hour of a 2-3 hour long final film. At any rate, MOCKINGJAY Part 1 is disappointing, but still worth a watch. You just might want to skip it in theaters and watch it at home before going to see MOCKINGJAY Part 2 next year.

Grade: B-

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Sci-Fi Violence and Action, some Suggestive Material, Nudity and Language

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Directed by: Bryan Singer

Written by: Simon Kinberg

(based on the comic books DAYS OF FUTURE PAST by Chris Claremont & John Byrne)

Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart, Michael Fassbender, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Nicholas Hoult, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Booboo Stewart, Fan Bingbing, Adan Canto, Evan Peters, Josh Helman & Lucas Till

How far comic book movies have come. If you traveled back to 2000 and told any X-Men fan that there would be seven films in the series with the Days Of Future Past storyline being covered in a 2014 installment, they probably would have either groaned (in fear of Hollywood screwing it all up) or laughed in your face (taking the whole thing as wishful thinking). Through the great entries (X-MEN 2 and FIRST CLASS) to the just plain bad (ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and X-MEN 3), the X-MEN series has seen good times and rough spots. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (the seventh movie!) is the most accomplished film in the series. This is a superhero fan’s wet-dream come true and I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t wind up being the best (and biggest) movie of Summer 2014. So many things could have gone wrong in the ambitious scope of this project. Tons of characters are sprawling over two different time periods and the plot might have easily wound up in confusing convoluted areas. With original X-MEN 1 & 2 director Bryan Singer directing, FUTURE PAST easily winds up being one of the best superhero movies of all-time and takes bold new directions for the franchise.

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The future is a bleak wasteland. Mutant-hunting robots called Sentinels have run rampant and civilization is in ashes as mutants are being reduced to an endangered species. As well-known mutants are dying left and right from these killing machines, one last hope emerges. Kitty Pryde (a.k.a. Shadowcat seen in X-MEN 3) has developed a mutation that allows the consciousness of a person to be taken back in time. In order to avert the event that caused the 50-year downward spiral of the creation of the Sentinels, Wolverine’s consciousness travel back to his 1973 self in order to change the future. This means finding a disheveled Professor X, a locked-up Magneto, and a vengeance-seeking Mystique before history repeats itself or the future winds up on a potentially darker course. To give too many details away would spoil some of the fun to be had in this superhero extravaganza. Comic book nerds and those who have a vague recollection of the “Future Past” storyline will find that creative liberties have been taken, but it all works out in favor for an infinitely satisfying summer blockbuster that delivers on every level imaginable.

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Immediately taking a darker tone than any of the previous installments, FUTURE PAST makes it clear that everything hinges on the journey that Wolverine and the younger mutants are taking in order to save the world. Employing the use of every single big mutant imaginable and some really cool nods to the previous films, this is most definitely a movie made for fans. I can’t imagine anyone walking into this seventh X-MEN movie without having seen the original movies, but it’s pretty much required to have watched them all or you’re going to be severely lost. It’s not as if the movie is so convoluted and intricate that it requires you having finished a marathon of the series mere hours before walking in, but it helps if you’re an X-MEN movie junkie.

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The time-traveling aspect of the movie could have easily been a B-movie level gimmick, but the way it pertains to the plot and how it’s being used makes all the difference. Everything being played so straight-faced in this would-be ridiculous scenario works as movie magic on the audience to treat it seriously and invest their emotions into watching everything play out in front of your eyes. FUTURE PAST is a movie so gripping, exciting, and well-paced from frame one that I felt as if I was in the film. That’s the primary purpose of this visual art-form to begin with. Movies are meant to suck you into a completely other world and kept you in that universe for the running time. For a movie running at over two hours, everything is extremely well-paced. Nothing is left to drag and my anxiety levels were going up for the characters as story got drastically more complicated.

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The brilliance of FIRST CLASS (which is easily the second highest entry in the series) combines with the balls-to-the-wall creative nature of X-MEN 2 (the third highest entry in the series) in DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. It’s a game-changer in the series that has left me excited for the many more sequels there are to come (it’s been reported that some of the newcomers have signed on for four more films). Things have changed. An impact has been made. The wrongs of the two lesser entries have been corrected in the writing of this latest installment. This is a superhero movie that absolutely shines out of, not only the X-MEN series, but the entire comic book film genre as a whole. Christopher Nolan brought us the DARK KNIGHT trilogy and it seems like Singer’s X-MEN is more than willing to be a substitute for that series!

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What else can I really say that you don’t already assume? Every cast member (despite how small some of their roles are) does a fantastic job in their parts. Some reprising characters for the sixth time now and others are fresh faces, but they all play on the same level of competent talent. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is awesome! It’s absolutely awesome and plays on an epic scale. Those two words (awesome, epic) are overused in this internet age, but they truly apply to this latest sequel. One of the most complex storylines in the comics has made its way to the big screen in brilliant fashion. FUTURE PAST is probably going to wind up being the biggest movie of the summer. It’s one of the best films 2014 has to offer (thus far). This makes me so excited to see all the things that are coming next, beginning with APOCALYPSE in 2016.

Grade: A+

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